Posted in Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 2:35 pm by Benjamin Ross

Two hours outside of Krakow, Poland is the small town of Oświęcim, better known by its infamous German name Auschwitz–namesake of the concentration camp located just outside the town.  Scholars disagree on exact figures, but it’s estimated that anywhere from 800,000 to 4 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz and its neighboring camp Birkenau between 1942 and 1944.

All visitors who arrive at Auschwitz after 9 am need to join a tour group.  If you arrive before 9, you explore the area on your own, and in relative quiet.  I arrived at 8 am, and was greeted by this eerie fog at the notorious front gate.  The German reads “Work makes free.”
Much of Auschwitz has been restored and rebuilt, but in a way which so as to preserved the setup of the camp.  Most striking for me were the barbed wire fences which surrounded the entire area.
Most of the barracks have been converted to museum exhibits.  My impression was that the exhibits were geared primarily towards a local audience, serving as a documentary of what happened on the grounds.
Auschwitz wasn’t originally designed as a Nazi extermination camp, but rather was built by the Polish army as military barracks.  After the Nazis invaded Poland, they decided Auschwitz would be an ideal location to house their growing population of prisoners, and facilitate Hitler’s “final solution.”
Located a 10 minute bus ride away from Auschwitz is the site which came to be known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau.  While Auschwitz served primarily as a prison and labor camp, Birkenau was designed specifically as a human extermination facility.  This was very apparent by the layouts of the camps.  The picture above is the front gate of Birkenau.  A railroad, built to ship prisoners in cattle cars, led through the hole in the middle and inside of the camp.
The railroad spanned the entire length of the camp from front to back, a length of over a mile.
The end of the railroad led directly to the gas chambers (not pictured) so that those not deemed fit for labor could be gassed immediately.  On either side of the railroad were long stretches of barracks which housed prisoners.  When the Nazis realized that World War II was coming to a close, they burned the barracks as a means to destroy evidence of the mass exterminations.  For most of the barracks, all that remains are the brick chimneys and a rectangular outline where they once stood.
Unlike Auschwitz, Birkenau does not have many museum exhitits.  Rather, most restoration efforts have focused on preserving the site in situ.
Here is one of the buildings which remain standing.
…as well as a lookout tower and the remains of a sewage facility.
This is the inside of one of the barracks.  I it’s a reconstruction, but it shows the types of quarters in which prisoners had to live.  These are the sleeping quarters.  As many as 8 prisoners would be jammed into a single section at once.  In such close quarters, lice and disease-bearing pathogens were rampant.
The end of the railroad tracks.  The gas chambers would have been directly behind.
Here is what is left of one of the gas chambers.  Like the barracks, the Nazis destroyed the gas Birkenau chambers when it became apparent that the war was coming to a close.  Restoration efforts have focused on preserving the remains to the greatest extent possible.
another one of the gas chambers
A final shot from Birkenau.  Never Forget.



Central Europe: What I ate.

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 2:13 pm by Benjamin Ross

Food!  Can’t ever seem to get enough of it.  Here are the gastronomic highlights from my 2012 trip through Scandinavia and Central Europe.

This was one of my favorite Scandinavian fast food discoveries:  smörgåsbord.  I couldn’t tell you how to pronounce all those accent marks, but this stuff is delicious, and uber-portable taboot.
Smörgåsbord is sold in specialty shops all over Copenhagen, and consist of a slice of bread covered with a wide variety of toppings including various permutations of potatoes, cheese, fresh fish, deli meat and vegetables.  Great to eat on the go.
Denmark also has a respectable hot dog stand scene, as exemplified by this neighborhood stand in Dragor, a small town just outside of Copenhagen.
Here’s a Danish take on the hot dog, covered with pickles and fried onions.
Moving on now, you would have to have your head in the sand not to notice the plentiful, cheap, delicious, Turkish food options all throughout the EU.  Here’s a shawarma plate from Malmo, Sweden.
If I had to pick the country where I ate the best on this trip, it would probably be the Czech Republic.  One of my personal favorites was Svíčková, marinated beef sirloin served with onions and “dumplings.”  I use quotes because Czech dumplings aren’t the same rolled up meat and/or veggies normally thought of in an Eastern culinary context, but rather pieces of foamy bread, which can be used to soak up the savory sauces.
Another Czech dish–I have no idea what this is except that it consisted of pork, potatoes, and beans, and was delicious.
In terms of wining and dining, the Czech Republic is dirt cheap. I don’t think I spent more than $5 on a single meal in the Czech Republic, and most of these were consumed in somewhat fancy sit-down restaurants. But even more than the cheap food, the ridiculously low price of alcohol came as somewhat of a pleasant shock, and helps explain the amount of expat alcoholism which abounds in Prague.  Beers in Prague, good beers (Pilsner Urquel typically), in a bar, typically cost the equivalent of 1 US dollar. And to evoke the words of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction “I ain’t talkin’ about a no paper cup.  I’m talkin’ about a glass o’ beer.” (see picture above).  It is not uncommon for Czech restaurants to sell a glass of beer for literally half the price of a bottle of water.
And now here’s a Czech version of the portable bread slice covered with meat and veggies.
Back in the days of Czechoslovakia, the Reds weren’t too hot about allowing Coca-Cola to open shop within their empire.  So instead, they made their own cola, Kofola.  But Kofola is not simply a Coke/Pepsi knockoff.  It has its own unique Kofoly taste, and has survived the fall of communism, remaining a major player in the Czech soft drink market, now competing directly with Coke and Pepsi
Is Homer Simpson Czech?
mmm…Czech food
Last meal in the Czech Republic, this one in Plzen (namesake of my neighborhood in Chicago as well as Pilsner Urquel):  braised rabbit meat, greens, and a potato cake.
moving on now…to Slovakian ice cream in Bratislava
and just across the Austrian border to the Naschmarkt in Vienna
I couldn’t tell you what much of this stuff is, but it was fun to sample and oogle at.
It’s hard to tell by looking at it, but this was a complete meal from the Naschmarkt.  Austrian finger food is some of the richest stuff I’ve ever eaten.
Vienna is also quite the melting pot for various culinary traditions, as illustrated by this Asian-Turkish-Schnitzel joint.
Moving into Hungary now.  Let’s start with the Budapest markets.
Out of dumb luck, I wandered into this fantastic triple-tiered wet market, lined with streetfood-esque stalls on the Buda side of the city.  (Budapest was originally two separate cities:  Buda and Pest)


The more touristy market is located in Pest.  Still well worth a visit, despite the proliferation of gift shops and inflated prices.
Here’s what I ate at the market in Pest.  Don’t recall exactly what it was, but very “meat and potatoes.”
While in Budapest, I went on a walking tour of the city, and afterwords the tourguide offered to take those interested to a “regular, cafeteria-style, working class people’s meal.”  This is beef and mushrooms on the right, with a white, bread-like substance (not sure what you call this stuff) to go along.  On the left is the requisite Hungarian pickle plate.
Another simple, delicious, Hungarian meal, this one from the town of Sopron.  Notice the yellow pickled pepper on the right.  It’s stuffed to the brim with sauerkraut!  Four days in Hungary reaffirmed that when it comes to sausage making and pickling technique, the US is still way behind the curve.
Just like anywhere else in the world, McDonald’s is all over Hungary with it’s own localized line of specialty items such as the “Chicago Classic” and the “Miami Deluxe.”
One final meal shot from Budapest.  Again, I have no idea what this was, but it was delish, like most of what I ate in Hungary.
Next stop was Poland.  Here’s a market in Krakow.
…just like back home in Chicago
Here’s zapekanka, Poland’s answer to late night drunken pizza.
I have no idea what “zapekanka” translates to in English, but I’d imagine it means something along the lines of “toasted bread with melted cheese, sauce, and your choice of pork, beef, mushrooms, peppers, or any other topping imaginable.”
Here’s another zapekanka, with sausage and fried onions.
Another Polish delicacy, tartar:  raw beef mixed with raw egg, fresh onion, paprika, pepper, and a mustardy sauce.  Any fears of disease-bearing pathogens is easily washed away with a few shots of vodka.
Here’s something I didn’t expect to see:  Mike Tyson’s mug on the label of Polish energy drinks.
And what stay in Poland would be complete with out pierogi, the polish take on dumplings?
I mentioned before that Turkish food was a major theme in my European travels.  Here’s a “doner” from Berlin, which very well may have more Turkish restaurants per capita than any other city in the world not named Istanbul.
Berlin is a city with diverse food options, but I was particularly impressed by the various portable meat-based snacks.  I have completely forgotten what this was called, but it was some kind of fatty pork cutlet served in a BBQish sauce.
And then there was the famous Berlin currywurst.  I made sure to eat a good 3 or 4 of these before heading back home to my own glutinous part of the planet.

That’s it for food.  More to come in the way of sightseeing.

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